Without the fart jokes, the script for Luis Valdez’ Adios Mama Carlota, the Empress of Mexico could read as a serious historical drama. This co-production between the San Jose Stage Company and El Teatro Campesino opts instead for a bawdy tone that lands somewhere between commedia dell’arte, an opera buffa and British pantomime.
It’s not the flatulence, thoughwhen it does blast across the stagethat establishes the play’s assertion of camp. Carlota’s (Allison F. Rich) opening monologue accomplishes that trick the instant she introduces herself as the former Empress of Mexico.
This deposed 19th-century monarch hobbles out clutching her cane, her back hunched over and covered in a matronly shawl. Before she even speaks, we see that her makeup is as thick as an actual mask. It signals a ghoulish, grande dame quality that she shares with Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard (1950). Even though Bette Davis did play a version of Carlota in Juarez (1939), Rich’s vocal intonations owe more to Gloria Swanson’s Norma. Swooping down low and wide with the phrases she’s chosen to emphasize, Rich reaches for and achieves a melodramatic portrait. Under the direction of Kinan Valdez (Luis’ son), the rest of the cast follows suit. These are wide- and wild-eyed performances that extend themselves to the last row of seats in the theater.
To point out the irreparable amount of harm that European colonialism brought about, Luis Valdez has reimagined Carlota and her husband Maximilian’s (Will Springhorn Jr.) disastrous and brief Mexican reign (1864-1867). Adios Mama Carlota captures the couple at the height of their decadent, imperial hubris and follows up with their subsequent downfall.
Their story is bookended by an elderly, unbalanced Carlota, who’s plagued by the disturbing events from her past. Valdez includes dozens of relevant facts to contextualize the couple’s absurd position as emperor and empress of Mexico. Benito Juarez (Noé Yoacoatle Montoya), the deposed president of Mexico, and Abraham Lincoln make appearances. We also learn that Napoleon III (Martin Rojas Dietrich) used them as figureheads so that he could pilfer Mexican assets in support of the French empire.
One way to make a history lesson less dreary for a contemporary audience is to revivify the dead as a pageant of buffoons. Maximilian is a blustering philanderer. Napoleon III sports a fiendish mustache that would put Yosemite Sam to shame. That Rojas Dietrich didn’t twist the ends of it showed remarkable restraint on his part. With Carlota’s character, however, Valdez has to tread more carefully. As an arrogant European, and a symbol of lily-white racism, she could have been reduced to an object of ridicule. But her gender complicates the way she’s portrayed. Alongside Conchita (Jessica Oseguda), Maximilian’s misused Mexican mistress, both women can rightfully ask the anguished question, “Why are men such destructive animals?”
Had Adios Mama Carlota focused on and expanded that aspect of her story, Valdez would have humanized a white colonialist. That would have made for a troubling but richer character. As he’s drawn Carlota now, she’s simply a grotesque. Her persona and her emotions are so exaggerated that she becomes a throwback, a madwoman in the attic, someone to be feared or mocked but not apprehended. Her mental instability looks comical when it should read as her tragic flaw. Carlota represents an aspect of Western imperialism. In saying adios to her, the playwright is also casting the colonialist’s impulse out of Mexico. But that theme of man’s inhumanity to man, and especially to woman, loses its potency as the play determinedly retreats into farce.
As a female antagonist and counterpoint to Carlota, Valdez summons Conchita to the stage. Acting as a spirit guide, she goads Carlota into confronting her ghosts, to have a final night of reckoning, like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. But Conchita isn’t free to dematerialize and leave. They’re imprisoned together in Europe and tortured by their shared memories of a distant Mexico. In her delicate voice, Oseguda sings a lovely self-portrait in song about an innocent dove. Like much else that takes place in Adios Mama Carlota, the song, and the genuine emotion it evokes, gets carried away by all that precipitous wind.
Adios Mama Carlota
Thru Apr 28, $32+
San Jose Stage Company